"If the right side eludes you this time
There's another one standing in line
And the languages change in the dark
But on paper it makes perfect sense"

-Superchunk, "The Only Piece That You Get"

The best way I can think to compare the two phases of Hibiki is by comparing two sets of episodes: 17/18 and 34/35.

The first two are the Ibuki/Kasumi date episodes. It's all about how Kasumi views Ibuki as a boy, and can't quite see him as the man he's become. Once she gets to see him in his element, as an Oni, she respects him as a man. It's a stirring episode of discovery, a story of mutual respect and how we sometimes aren't able to see our friends' development. It's tender, and unexpected.

The second two are a story where Todoroki gives Hinaka a fish for her birthday, and she thinks she should break up with him. His lack of confidence in his lovelife causes him to be terrible in his professional life, leading to him making such good ramen that Hinaka sees him as a man worth loving. It's ridiculous, and untethered from reality.

The thing is, I think they both have their strengths. I don't think one is wrong. The first phase story is sweet, but lacks dynamism. It's deliberate, but can sometimes feel dull in stretches. The second phase story is a blast, but with a comedic edge that smothers its poignancy. It reduces characters to caricature, even as it makes those caricatures lovable and worth rooting for.

Tonally, these two things don't belong together. Separately... they have their merits?

I already wrote a bunch about the first phase, so let me get a few words in about the second phase, as a whole. (Normally, this'd be a post taking apart the entire series, but I just don't see the value in doing that this time. Doesn't seem like a fair way to approach things.)

The Asumu stuff works. It really does. The main thing the new team needed to do was keep the Asumu story heading in the right direction, and I really think they did. There're a couple weird turns, and some episodes where he felt abandoned, but it ain't like the first phase didn't have a couple bum episodes for that kid. The steady growth of Asumu, from apprentice to artist to doctor to man, I think they did a great job making that path feel as uncertain as Asumu always was, while resolving itself in a satisfying way. The series was originally about how to grow up well, and that part of the show was still a major emphasis for the second phase.

Kiriya is... I mean, not a great character. He's funny, and aggressively awful, but his character is like a play on that South Park joke: Step 1: Terrible > Step 2: ??? > Step 3: Oni. I liked some of how the show maneuvered him into that role, but it's still pretty rushed. He's a natural foil to Asumu's character, someone who's trained and confident and driven, all things that Asumu lacks, while being so catastrophically flawed on an emotional level that he's got the biggest hill to climb as an Oni apprentice. He mostly didn't feel believable as a human being (the stuff with his dad resonated with me, but that's it), despite being a pretty fun addition to the cast, which is probably why he's what I'll always think of when I think of the second phase of Hibiki.

Well, him or Todoroki, who seems like The New Pet for the writing team on the second phase. Todoroki gets WAY more of the spotlight in the second phase, for better or worse. I genuinely disliked the Zanki Dies story, specifically for how superfluous it felt for Todoroki's personal growth, but there's no denying that it was a big story for the show. Todoroki gets both the funniest episodes of the second phase (YMMV), as well as the most heart-rending. He's a lot wackier in this part of the show, which is a very Inoue thing, and it's not always to the show's benefit. I think the actor elevated everything he was given (I get why they wanted to write more comedic material for him), but not everything he was given was worth elevating.

Alongside Todoroki, Hinaka sure became the Main Sister, didn't she? Definitely graduated to the main cast. Kasumi barely gets a look in during the second phase, with Hinaka's relationship stories supplanting Kasumi's, and no more camping to get Kasumi out into the monster plots. Like Hitomi, Kasumi's a character that got dropped pretty hard in the second phase.

Ibuki's another one who, boy, not a lot going on. Ostensibly he's got something to do in the Akira Quits story, but the whole point of that one ends up being that he doesn't get a vote in what she decides, so, nope! (Also, oh my god, my least favorite part of that story is when Ibuki made it all about him.) He's a very pleasant, handsome boy in the second phase, and that ends up being the entirety of his arc.

Hibiki... I don't think he came off worse in the second phase, but... I think Hibiki is a problem that the show never really solved in either phase. There's a way to do a monster show that runs alongside a coming-of-age drama, but I don't think anyone on this show really figured out how to make it work in a longform way. Which is not to say that they didn't figure it out episode-by-episode! Because they did! It's just, Hibiki not really being able to substantially grow over this thing, to only be able to incrementally open himself up to being a friend to Asumu, it's a tough arc for a character. It mostly feels like he stays static, which is some faint praise. He doesn't worsen in the second phase, but he still feels as occasionally irrelevant as he could in the first phase. His basic character in the finale is the same as his character in the premiere, except now he has Asumu in his life. That's a big thing! But, it's one thing. I don't know. It's really hard to have a non-Rider be the main character of a Rider show, and I don't know if this series ever figured out the best way to deal with the Primary Rider.

It doesn't help that the monster stuff went from being dull to actively frustrating, though. If there's one thing I could've predicted in advance of watching these last 19 episodes, it's that Inoue would suck at doing an overarching monster plot. It's not like the season-long monster plots on Agito or Faiz were any great shakes. Agito's was relentlessly vague, while Faiz's had a real tough time switching into its endgame. (We may never know for sure why the previous team was let go, or why Inoue was put in charge of the writing, but it will never not be funny for me to think that the execs wanted a more action-focused show and they picked the guy who was the worst at crafting monster plots.) And here, he had a basically blank slate (there was precious little established by the previous creative team) and he still couldn't figure out a way to make it worth watching. The Oni storyline is a gigantic shrug, with a final battle that the show couldn't care enough about to actually show the victory. The most I could be on the side of the people who write-off the second phase is on the topic of the monster plots. They're at best nonsensical, when they're not infuriating. The worst writing on this show is as a result of the monster plots.

And yet, I wouldn't call the second phase bad. (Well, maybe 38 and 39...) I think it's sloppy, sure. It is trying to work at a higher temperature than the other phase, absolutely. But I think there are elements that continue to work (Asumu, mostly) that make it worth watching. I think there's care taken to try and honor what came before, while still working to different guidelines. There are some gems in here, buried. It's arguable if it's worth the time to sift for them, and I don't blame anyone who opts not to, but right now I'm leaning towards feeling like it was worth it for me.